Lectio Divina, or “divine reading,” is a powerful way to engage Sacred Scripture in a prayerful way. Dating back as one of the oldest practices in the Church, Lectio Divina is the process of reading Scripture as the living Word of God. Rather than approaching it as something to be studied or dissected, this process invites the one praying to enter into the text and to be moved by it.
The first step is an obvious one: read the text. There’s no specific criteria for choosing which part of the Bible to read, but the Gospels are always a good place to start. After one has read the text (it is preferable to read it aloud so that it can be proclaimed and heard, even if doing it alone) time is taken to meditate on what was just heard. This is a time to focus on a particular word or phrase that captured the attention of the reader, thinking about the significance of that word or phrase in the larger context of the passage, and to offer a response. “What did this passage mean to me? How is it calling me to change my life?” Essentially, it is the human response to the Word. Once the reader has exhausted the meditative process, it is appropriate to move into a time for prayer. This can be personal and spontaneous, or communal and pre-written, but the purpose of this portion is to turn one’s will over to God and to ask for God’s aid in prayer. Words are not even necessary for this portion; all that is necessary is a will like Mary as she says, “Thy will be done.” If this is truly achieved, one enters finally into contemplation, the height of mystical prayer. This level of prayer is not easy, and I must admit I have very little experience with it, but it is in essence being so free from one’s own will that God is able to respond to our prayer. Think of it as surrender or radical openness, a time for God to gaze upon the one praying and be in union with them. The mystics have experienced this as a state of ecstasy, but it does not always have to be so radical. Often times, this is simply the time when God chooses to speak to our hearts.
But this is not the end, for the end is just the beginning. With each finished cycle brings the start of a new one, returning to the text to read the passage again. By repeating the process multiple times in one session, each prayer builds upon itself, calling the one praying to a deeper experience each time. The text does not change, but the one hearing it, having now mediated, prayed, and contemplated on it with God, now comes back to the text with a different perspective. Words or phrases that seemed unimportant before may take on a new meaning or be heard in a different way. The text calls the reader to a deeper consciousness each time. This is the essence of the Living Word.
This, however, is incomplete for us as Franciscans. Lection Divina can only be considered an appropriate prayer with the addition of a final step: action. Once we have read, meditated, prayed, and contemplated, there must be something that takes root in our lives to inspire a conversion. How has the passage or life experience moved us closer to God? How are we converted by God’s presence in our lives?
It was after a wonderful conversation about just this that my spiritual director made the connection that the process we follow in Lectio Divina is the same process we follow in our own lives. What he meant by this was that the journey of our life is something that can be prayerfully entered into, rather than just analyzed, and that we can experience God in reliving, or rereading our life’s journey. In some ways, the stories of our past are unchanging, set in stone. But as we read our life’s stories and allow time for meditation, prayer, and contemplation, we are called to a deeper understanding of what each event means to us.
The clear example I have right now is my novitiate. I believe very strongly that the majority of the stuff that “happened” to me during novitiate, the bulk of what we may call “revelation,” occurred in the first three months. The remaining nine months I believe I spent trying to understand and integrate what I had experienced into myself.
What I also realized was that life is a cyclical set of situations that recur on a regular basis; progress, then, looks much more like a spiral staircase than it does a ladder. We want to think sometimes that we can find a solution to our problems that will leave them in our past, stepping up a step on the ladder never to come back down. And yet, a short period of time later, we find ourselves face-to-face with the same problem. Have we regressed? Not necessary. Just like in Lectio Divina and just like walking up a spiral staircase, each step brings us somewhere new and yet ever closer to where we first began. While I found myself becoming frustrated with the lack of “progress” in my life, I realized that with true introspection, by recognizing the situation, meditating on it, bringing it to prayer, and then contemplating with God, there was something new that I could bring to the situation. I may have be standing in the same spot as before, but my perspective had changed; one floor higher, there was a slightly new vantage point on the same situation from which to act. Once I chose how to act, there began a new cycle of prayerfully reading that situation into the corpus of my life.
My advice, then, is twofold. The first is to read scripture in this way, prayerfully engaging the text and letting it speak to you in a way that studying cannot. A common practice is to find the Gospel reading for the upcoming Sunday and to spend time during the week going through this process. It will change your week and will most definitely change your experience at mass. The second is a bit more demanding, but potentially more fruitful: keep a journal. I cannot tell you how powerful it has been to reread my entries from the past two years, to notice patterns, and to identify growth.
Either way, know that life is not something to be solved once and for all, and that “growth” is not in leaving our problems behind. The best we can ever be is a people humble enough to know our own failings, smart enough to learn from them, and faithful enough to ask God for help.